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Onai, T, Lin HC, Schubert M, Koop D, Osborne PW, Alvarez S, Alvarez R, Holland ND, Holland LZ.  2009.  Retinoic acid and Wnt/beta-catenin have complementary roles in anterior/posterior patterning embryos of the basal chordate amphioxus. Developmental Biology. 332:223-233.   10.1016/j.ydbio.2009.05.571   AbstractWebsite

A role for Wnt/beta-catenin signaling in axial patterning has been demonstrated in animals as basal as cnidarians, while roles in axial patterning for retinoic acid (RA) probably evolved in the deuterostomes and may be chordate-specific. In vertebrates, these two pathways interact both directly and indirectly. To investigate the evolutionary origins of interactions between these two pathways, we manipulated Wnt/beta-catenin and RA signaling in the basal chordate amphioxus during the gastrula stage, which is the RA-sensitive period for anterior/posterior (A/P) patterning. The results show that Wnt/beta-catenin and RA signaling have distinctly different roles in patterning the A/P axis of the amphioxus gastrula. Wnt/beta-catenin specifies the identity of the ends of the embryo (high Wnt = posterior; low Wnt = anterior) but not intervening positions. Thus, Upregulation of Wnt/beta-catenin signaling induces ectopic expression of posterior markers at the anterior tip of the embryo. In contrast, RA specifies position along the A/P axis, but not the identity of the ends of the embryo-increased RA signaling strongly affects the domains of Hox expression along the A/P axis but has little or no effect on the expression of either anterior or posterior markers. Although the two pathways may both influence such things as specification of neuronal identity, interactions between them in A/P patterning appear to be minimal. (C) 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Schubert, M, Holland ND, Escriva H, Holland LZ, Laudet V.  2004.  Retinoic acid influences anteroposterior positioning of epidermal sensory neurons and their gene expression in a developing chordate (amphioxus). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 101:10320-10325.   10.1073/pnas.0403216101   AbstractWebsite

In developing chordates, retinoic acid (RA) signaling patterns the rostrocaudal body axis globally and affects gene expression locally in some differentiating cell populations. Here we focus on development of epidermal sensory neurons in an invertebrate chordate (amphioxus) to determine how RA signaling influences their rostrocaudal distribution and gene expression (for AmphiCoe, a neural precursor gene; for amphioxus islet and AmphiERR, two neural differentiation genes; and for AmphiHox1,-3, -4, and -6). Treatments with RA or an RA antagonist (BMS009) shift the distribution of developing epidermal neurons anteriorly or posteriorly, respectively. These treatments also affect gene expression patterns in the epidermal neurons, suggesting that RA levels may influence specification of neuronal subtypes. Although colinear expression of Hox genes is well known for the amphioxus central nervous system,we find an unexpected comparable colinearity for AmphiHox1, -3, -4, and -6 in the developing epidermis; moreover, RA levels affect the anteroposterior extent of these Hox expression domains, suggesting that RA signaling controls a colinear Hox code for anteroposterior patterning of the amphioxus epidermis. Thus, in amphioxus, the developing peripheral nervous system appears to be structured by mechanisms parallel to those that structure the central nervous system. One can speculate that, during evolution, an ancestral deuterostome that structured its panepidermal nervous system with an RA-influenced Hox code gave rise to chordates in which this patterning mechanism persisted within the epidermal elements of the peripheral nervous system and was transferred to the neuroectoderm as the central nervous system condensed dorsally.

Schubert, M, Yu JK, Holland ND, Escriva H, Laudet V, Holland LZ.  2005.  Retinoic acid signaling acts via Hox1 to establish the posterior limit of the pharynx in the chordate amphioxus. Development. 132:61-73.   10.1242/dev.01554   AbstractWebsite

In the invertebrate chordate amphioxus, as in vertebrates, retinoic acid (RA) specifies position along the anterior/posterior axis with elevated RA signaling in the middle third of the endoderm setting the posterior limit of the pharynx. Here we show that AmphiHox1 is also expressed in the middle third of the developing amphioxus endoderm and is activated by RA signaling. Knockdown of AmphiHox1 function with an antisense morpholino oligonucleotide shows that AmphiHox1 mediates the role of RA signaling in setting the posterior limit of the pharynx by repressing expression of pharyngeal markers in the posterior foregut/midgut endoderm. The spatiotemporal expression of these endodermal genes in embryos treated with RA or the RA antagonist BMS009 indicates that Pax1/9, Pitx and Notch are probably more upstream than Otx and Nodal in the hierarchy of genes repressed by RA signaling. This work highlights the potential of amphioxus, a genomically simple, vertebrate-like invertebrate chordate, as a paradigm for understanding gene hierarchies similar to the more complex ones of vertebrates.

Marl├ętaz, F, Holland LZ, Laudet V, Schubert M.  2006.  Retinoic acid signaling and the evolution of chordates. International Journal of Biological Science. 2(2):38-47.
Escriva, H, Holland ND, Gronemeyer H, Laudet C, Holland LZ.  2002.  The retinoic acid signaling pathway regulates anterior/posterior patterning in the nerve cord and pharynx of amphioxus, a chordate lacking neural crest. Development. 129:2905-2916. AbstractWebsite

Amphioxus, the closest living invertebrate relative of the vertebrates, has a notochord, segmental axial musculature, pharyngeal gill slits and dorsal hollow nerve cord, but lacks neural crest. In amphioxus, as in vertebrates, exogenous retinoic acid (RA) posteriorizes the embryo. The mouth and gill slits never form, AmphiPax1, which is normally downregulated where gill slits form, remains upregulated and AmphiHox1 expression shifts anteriorly in the nerve cord. To dissect the role of RA signaling in patterning chordate embryos, we have cloned the single retinoic acid receptor (AmphiRAR), retinoid X receptor (AmphiRXR) and an orphan receptor (AmphiTR2/4) from amphioxus. AmphiTR2/4 inhibits AmphiRAR-AmphiRXR-mediated transactivation in the presence of RA by competing for DR5 or IR7 retinoic acid response elements (RAREs). The 5' untranslated region of AmphiTR2/4 contains an IR7 element, suggesting possible auto- and RA-regulation. The patterns of AmphiTR2/4 and AmphiRAR expression during embryogenesis are largely complementary: AmphiTR2/4 is strongly expressed in the cerebral vesicle (homologous to the diencephalon plus anterior midbrain), while AmphiRAR expression is high in the equivalent of the hindbrain and spinal cord. Similarly, while AmphiTR2/4 is expressed most strongly in the anterior and posterior thirds of the endoderm, the highest AmphiRAR expression is in the middle third. Expression of AmphiRAR is upregulated by exogenous RA and completely downregulated by the RA antagonist BMS009. Moreover, BMS009 expands the pharynx posteriorly; the first three gill slit primordia are elongated and shifted posteriorly, but do not penetrate, and additional, non-penetrating gill slit primordia are induced. Thus, in an organism without neural crest, initiation and penetration of gill slits appear to be separate events mediated by distinct levels of RA signaling in the pharyngeal endoderm. Although these compounds have little effect on levels of AmphiTR2/4 expression, RA shifts pharyngeal expression of AmphiTR2/4 anteriorly, while BMS009 extends it posteriorly. Collectively, our results suggest a model for anteroposterior patterning of the amphioxus nerve cord and pharynx, which is probably applicable to vertebrates as well, in which a low anterior level of AmphiRAR (caused, at least in part, by competitive inhibition by AmphiTR2/4) is necessary for patterning the forebrain and formation of gill slits, the posterior extent of both being set by a sharp increase in the level of AmphiRAR.

Koop, D, Holland ND, Semon M, Alvarez S, de Lera AR, Laudet V, Holland LZ, Schubert M.  2010.  Retinoic acid signaling targets Hox genes during the amphioxus gastrula stage: Insights into early anterior-posterior patterning of the chordate body plan. Developmental Biology. 338:98-106.   10.1016/j.ydbio.2009.11.016   AbstractWebsite

Previous studies of vertebrate development have shown that retinoic acid (RA) signaling at the gastrula stage strongly influences anterior-posterior (A-P) patterning of the neurula and later stages. However, much less is known about the more immediate effects of RA signaling on gene transcription and developmental patterning at the gastrula stage. To investigate the targets of RA signaling during the gastrula stage, we used the basal chordate amphioxus, in which gastrulation involves very minimal tissue movements. First, we determined the effect of altered RA signaling on expression of 42 genes (encoding transcription factors and components of major signaling cascades) known to be expressed in restricted domains along the A-P axis during the gastrula and early neurula stage. Of these 42 genes, the expression domains during gastrulation of only four (Hox1, Hox3, HNF3-1 and Wnt3) were spatially altered by exposure of the embryos to excess RA or to the RA antagonist BMS009. Moreover, blocking protein synthesis with puromycin before adding RA or BMS009 showed that only three of these genes (Hox1, Hox3 and HNF3-1) are direct RA targets at the gastrula stage. From these results we conclude that in the amphioxus gastrula RA signaling primarily acts via regulation of Hox transcription to establish positional identities along the A-P axis and that Hox1, Hox3, HNF3-1 and Wnt3 constitute a basal module of RA action during chordate gastrulation. (C) 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Schubert, M, Holland ND, Laudet V, Holland LZ.  2006.  A retinoic acid-Hox hierarchy controls both anterior/posterior patterning and neuronal specification in the developing central nervous system of the cephalochordate amphioxus. Developmental Biology. 296:190-202.   10.1016/j.ydbio.2006.04.457   AbstractWebsite

Retinoic acid (RA) mediates both anterior/posterior patterning and neuronal specification in the vertebrate central nervous system (CNS). However, the molecular mechanisms downstream of RA are not well understood. To investigate these mechanisms, we used the invertebrate chordate amphioxus, in which the CNS, although containing only about 20,000 neurons in adults, like the vertebrate CNS, has a forebrain, midbrain, hindbrain, and spinal cord and is regionalized by RA-signaling. Here we show, first, that domains of genes with expression normally limited to diencephalon and midbrain are generally not affected by altered RA-signaling, second, that contrary to previous reports, not only Hox1, 3, and 4, but also Hox2 and Hox6 are collinearly expressed in the amphioxus CNS, and third, that collinear expression of all these Hox genes is controlled by RA-signaling. Finally, we show that Hox1 is involved in mediating both the role of RA-signaling in regionalization of the hindbrain and in specification of hindbrain motor neurons. Thus, morpholino knock-down of the single amphioxus Hox1 mimics the effects of treatments with an RA-antagonist. This analysis establishes RA-dependent regulation of collinear Hox expression as a feature common to the chordate CNS and indicates that the RA-Hox hierarchy functions both in proper anterior/posterior patterning of the developing CNS and in specification of neuronal identity. (c) 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Holland, LZ, Holland PWH, Holland ND.  1996.  Revealing homologies between body parts of distantly related animals by in situ hydridization to developmental genes: Amphioxus vs vertebrates. Molecular zoology : advances, strategies, and protocols. ( Ferraris JD, Palumbi SR, Eds.).:267-282,473-483., New York: Wiley-Liss Abstract
Holland, LZ, Holland ND.  2007.  A revised fate map for amphioxus and the evolution of axial patterning in chordates. Integrative and Comparative Biology. 47:360-372.   10.1093/icb/icm064   AbstractWebsite

The chordates include vertebrates plus two groups of invertebrates (the cephalochordates and tunicates). Previous embryonic fate maps of the cephalochordate amphioxus (Branchiostoma) were influenced by preconceptions that early development in amphioxus and ascidian tunicates should be fundamentally the same and that the early amphioxus embryo, like that of amphibians, should have ventral mesoderm. Although detailed cell lineage tracing in amphioxus has not been done because of limited availability of the embryos and because cleavage is radial and holoblastic with the blastomeres nearly equal in size and not tightly adherent until the mid-blastula stage, a compilation of data from gene expression and function, blastomere isolation and dye labeling allows a more realistic fate map to be drawn. The revised fate map is substantially different from that of ascidians. It shows (1) that the anterior pole of the amphioxus embryo is offset dorsally from the animal pole only by about 20 degrees, (2) that the ectoderm/mesendoderm boundary (the future rim of the blastopore) is at the equator of the blastula, which approximately coincides with the 3rd cleavage plane, and (3) that there is no ventral mesoderm during the gastrula stage. Involution or ingression of cells over the blastopore lip is negligible, and the blastopore, which is posterior, closes centripetally as if by a purse string. During the gastrula stage, the animal pole shifts ventrally, coming to lie about 20 degrees ventral to the anterior tip of the late gastrula/early neurula. Comparisons of the embryos of amphioxus and vertebrates indicate that in spite of large differences in the mechanics of cleavage and gastrulation, anterior/posterior and dorsal/ventral patterning occur by homologous genetic mechanisms. Therefore, the small, nonyolky embryo of amphioxus is probably a reasonable approximation of the basal chordate embryo before the evolution of determinate cleavage in the tunicates and the evolution large amounts of yolk in basal vertebrates.

Koop, D, Chen J, Theodosiou M, Carvalho JE, Alvarez S, de Lera AR, Holland LZ, Schubert M.  2014.  Roles of retinoic acid and Tbx1/10 in pharyngeal segmentation: amphioxus and the ancestral chordate condition. Evodevo. 5   10.1186/2041-9139-5-36   AbstractWebsite

Background: Although chordates descend from a segmented ancestor, the evolution of head segmentation has been very controversial for over 150 years. Chordates generally possess a segmented pharynx, but even though anatomical evidence and gene expression analyses suggest homologies between the pharyngeal apparatus of invertebrate chordates, such as the cephalochordate amphioxus, and vertebrates, these homologies remain contested. We, therefore, decided to study the evolution of the chordate head by examining the molecular mechanisms underlying pharyngeal morphogenesis in amphioxus, an animal lacking definitive neural crest. Results: Focusing on the role of retinoic acid ( RA) in post-gastrulation pharyngeal morphogenesis, we found that during gastrulation, RA signaling in the endoderm is required for defining pharyngeal and non-pharyngeal domains and that this process involves active degradation of RA anteriorly in the embryo. Subsequent extension of the pharyngeal territory depends on the creation of a low RA environment and is coupled to body elongation. RA further functions in pharyngeal segmentation in a regulatory network involving the mutual inhibition of RA-and Tbx1/10-dependent signaling. Conclusions: These results indicate that the involvement of RA signaling and its interactions with Tbx1/10 in head segmentation preceded the evolution of neural crest and were thus likely present in the ancestral chordate. Furthermore, developmental comparisons between different deuterostome models suggest that the genetic mechanisms for pharyngeal segmentation are evolutionary ancient and very likely predate the origin of chordates.